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The integral role and un-tapped potential of co-operatives in Canada

By: Michael Barrett

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following op-ed was published on National Newswatch on June 25, 2019.

As MPs prepare to leave Ottawa for their ridings this summer, and as political parties strengthen their war chests and finalize campaign platforms, a fundamental question is being considered on the hustings, on Main Street in rural Canada and on Bay Street: how can Canada be a better nation? In Canada, one thing is for certain: we will need every fiber of our economic strength to be fully marshalled if we are to remain prosperous as a country. This includes the essential alignment of resources for co-operatives and the alternative business model that forms the foundation of the sector.

Co-operatives play a key economic role in Canada, providing goods and services to more than 31 million member owners and supporting over 666,146 direct and spinoff jobs across the country. With $503 billion in assets and $85.9 billion in annual business volume, co-ops contribute more than 3.4% annually to Canada’s GDP and provide key services and products in a variety of fields, including: agriculture, food and farm, tourism, art and culture, child care, housing, retail goods, education, renewable energy, transportation, social services, natural resources, financial and insurance services, and even funeral services.

A co-operative is a different way of doing business, one that empowers collectives of people to act together to address a need or solve a problem – whether that means responding to a market opportunity or meeting a need that neither the market nor public sector fulfils. In a co-operative, member-owners lead, invest and direct the business, distributing profits to members and keeping dollars circulating within the local economy. Importantly, co-operatives are guided by principles that keep the need for profitability balanced with the needs of members. Co-ops, big and small, live these principles every day.

In the recently released report on the M-100 Consultation, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, notes: “Canada is home to one of the most innovative and growth-oriented co-operative sectors in the world. … This business model harbours great potential for the Canadian economy. This point was solidified by the many examples of how communities and entrepreneurs are innovating and scaling their local economies by using the co-operative model.”

Suffice it to say that if the next government wants to lead Canada successfully into the coming decade, it must remove barriers to growth in the co-op sector and work to position the co-operative business model in a way that maximizes its potential for the Canadian economy.

Much work has been done in recent months to pinpoint these barriers and identify a path forward, both in the public and private sectors. Just last week, I participated on a panel of co-operative leaders at the Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC) 2019 congress in Quebec City, aptly themed ‘360° of Co-operation’ to represent the collective of those present, from all economic sectors and types of co-operatives, large and small, rural and urban, financial and non-financial. As a panel, we discussed the critical need to maintain this momentum – particularly in an election year – and position Canada’s co-operatives to grow, innovate, and engage in global trade, on fair and equal terms.

In this context, the issues identified by Gay Lea Foods and other co-operative sector leaders at the CMC congress resonate well with what was presented in the government’s M‑100 consultations report.

At the most basic level, we need to increase the understanding of co-operatives, in general, and the socio-economic features that differentiate us from other types of businesses. The co-operative business model should be embedded as an economic and social model in business, finance and social programs across academia and government to encourage its benefits as a viable business model.

To maximize the sector’s economic potential, we need a national Co-op Secretariat that works cross-departmentally and inter-provincially to ensure fair and equal access to government programs, services and resources, including the recently implemented support systems for SMEs, the multi-year Innovation and Skills Plan and trade diversification strategies. We need to modernize the out of date Canada Cooperatives Act and work to harmonize the disparate provincial acts; and, we need to examine the unique role played by credit unions in striking a balance among competition, consumer access, and stability in the financial services industry without forcing them to pursue growth strategies or operate more like banks.

To foster growth, the sector needs modernized data. Basic research and data collection about co-operatives in Canada is out of date and fails to consider co-op size, length of time in business or the social and environmental benefits provided – information that would be of great benefit to the next government. Various new and emerging data guidelines and indicators such as the International Labour Office’s recently released Guidelines Concerning Statistics of Co-operatives and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals would be useful in this endeavour. Updated national data could also be used to promote and build awareness of the co-operative business model, increasing support and preventing further missed innovation opportunities.

To those of us who live it every day, it is abundantly clear that the co-operative business model holds a key to ensuring our country remains competitive and prosperous in a rapidly changing global economy. With the right education, understanding and resources, there is no better sector to meet Canada’s needs around innovation, diversity, youth, climate change, standard of living and rural and indigenous economic development. There have been many achievements and success within the sector – Gay Lea Foods is living proof of that – but there are still barriers that need to be addressed for our country to truly tap into the economic and innovation potential not only of Canadian co-operatives, but of the country as a whole. This should be top of mind for all political parties.


Michael Barrett is the President & CEO of Gay Lea Foods, a leading Canadian co-operative renowned for its co-operative-inspired values and high-quality, innovative and award-winning dairy products. With members on more than 1,400 farms across Ontario and Manitoba, and more than 4,320 producer and investor shareholders, Gay Lea Foods’ farmers, shareholders and employees have proudly collaborated for more than 60 years to meet member needs and ensure Gay Lea Foods is well positioned to lead as a thriving and innovative Canadian foods business.

To learn more about how leadership in the co-op sector is providing growth and opportunity for Canadians, visit

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